You squeeze into a small room that can fit only a handful of people. You are barely able to follow along as the bishop/priest rushes through his prayers and the responses to those prayers leave you wanting. You examine the parents’ faces, the baby, and those gathered around, and offer a smile if anyone happens to glance your way. And all you and mostly everyone really wants is simply to get to the end of the service when the baby is dunked in the water three times.
For most of us, the rest of the service is really just superfluous. “Just get to the end already!” is what many of us are probably thinking. And finally, after the “main event,” the baby puts on his new outfit—oh how cute! And then the baby is paraded around the church at the end of the Divine Liturgy in a procession that has all the “deacons” (most of whom were not present in the baptism ceremony) asking, “What’s the kid’s name? Is it a boy or girl? What do we say at the end of this Axios? Do we go around three times or just once? Someone bring a candle! Two candles? Or just one?”
And then it’s all over, and what exactly happened? That’s how the priest actually ends the service, asking, “Didn’t you hear the words full of awe that were told you about the holy baptism?”
How many of those who attended are able to describe the key elements of the baptism ceremony that they just witnessed? Sadly, quite few. It has become more of a show rather than a solemn mystery. Here is my list of 5 key highlights of this occasion that people often miss:
1. We maintain the ancient rite of consecrating the water first
Bishop Cyprian writes about this ancient rite in c. AD 250:
“It is required, then, that the water should first be cleansed and sanctified by the priest, so that it may wash away by its baptism the sins of the man who is baptized. For the Lord says by Ezekiel the prophet: ‘Then I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be cleansed from all your filthiness.'”
In the Coptic Church, after introductory prayers, the priest prays to “hallow this water and this oil.” Then the priest invites the congregation to publicly declare that they agree with what this “hallowing” does, and thus the congregation is to say “Amen” after these phrases:
- Unto Eternal Life. Amen.
- A garment of incorruption. Amen.
- A grace of sonship. Amen.
- A renewing of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Later the priest again asks God to transform the water so that it may receive “the grace of the Jordan [where Christ was baptized] and the power and the strength of heaven.”
- And upon the coming of Your Holy Spirit upon it, grant it the blessing of the Jordan. Amen.
- Give it power that it may become water of life. Amen.
- Holy water. Amen.
- Water that cleanses sins. Amen.
- Water of the washing of the new birth. Amen.
- Water of sonship. Amen.
Something you also may not realize is that after the baptism is complete, the priest prays that God “transform this water into its original nature” and no longer be deemed sanctified.
2. Laying on of hands, breathing onto the candidate, and holy oil – all 3 used
There are at least three ways where the Spirit of God is seen to be conferred upon a person:
- Holy oil. Usually in the Church we use the Holy Myron oil as the visible means by which the invisible grace of the Holy Spirit is imparted to individuals in the mysteries.
- Laying on of hands. In the beginning of Christianity, you will see instead that most commonly the clergy used to invoke the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands (cf. Acts 8:18).
- Breathing. You will also see that Christ breathed on the disciples to give them the Holy Spirit: “He breathed on them, and said to them,’Receive the Holy Spirit…'” (John 20:22). This reminds also of God breathing into Adam to give him life (Genesis 2:7); likewise baptism gives a person a new life.
In the Coptic baptism rite, you will see the priest using all three methods.
3. Turning West and RENOUNCING (aka exorcism of) SATAN – ancient rite
Probably my favorite part of the ceremony, even more than “the main event,” is when the candidate for baptism (or the candidate’s mother/godparent if they are unable to do this) renounces Satan and declares allegiance to Christ. Remember that in early Christianity many converts were leaving the worship of idols (worship of Greek Gods, etc.) and so it was particularly important for them to publicly pronounce their oath to turn away from such worship and turning towards the true God.
In the Coptic Church we maintain this beautiful rite:
The baptized turns to the west to state their renunciation. Why the west? Because the west is always depicted in the Bible as the location of evil as opposed to the east.
- The east is the direction Christ ascended and from that direction it is believed He will return;
- The Sun rises in the east, reminding us of the true Light who arose from the dead and who will come again;
- The garden of Eden, when man was cast out from it, had a Cherub who was placed at its east; we seek a return to Paradise in the east;
- Additionally there are many other verses that associate the east with God and goodness as opposed to the west.
Therefore, the baptized, looking westward, says:
“I renounce you Satan, and all your unclean works, and all your wicked angels and all your evil demons, and all your power, and all your abominable service, and all your evil cunning and error, and all your host, and all your authority and all the rest of your impieties.”
“I renounce you. I renounce you. I renounce you.”
Notice how close this is to the renunciation rite recorded in the early Christian writing known as the Apostolic Consitutions (c. AD 200-390 AD):
“I renounce Satan, his works, his pomps, his worship, his angels, his falsehoods, and all things that are under him.”
The scholar Tertullian also describes this event as it happened around the third century (c. AD 211):
“When we are going to enter the water, but a little before—in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the bishop—we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, his pomp, and his angels.”
After the renunciation, the priest declares, “Come out unclean spirit.”
See the following texts for how this ancient rite was practiced:
Tertullian (c. AD 197):
“I will turn to that highest authority of our ‘seal’ itself. When entering the water, we make profession of the Christian faith in the words of its rule. We then bear public testimony that we have renounced the devil, his pomp, and his angels.”
Apostolic Constitutions (c. AD 200-390):
“When the catechumen is to be baptized, let him learn what is involved in the renunciation of the devil and the joinder of himself to Christ. For it is appropriate that he should first abstain from things contrary and then to be admitted to the Mysteries. He must beforehand purify his heart from all wickedness. . . For even our Lord exhorted us in this manner, saying first, ‘Make disciples of all nations.’ But then he adds: ‘and baptize them into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore, let the candidate for baptism declare his renunciation in this manner: ‘I renounce Satan, his works, his pomps, his worship, his angels, his falsehoods, and all things that are under him.’ ”
4. Turning East and DECLARING ALLEGIANCE to CHRIST and reciting a creed – also an ancient rite
After renouncing Satan while turned towards the west, the candidate for baptism (or their parent/godparent) then turns to the east and declares:
“I profess You, O Christ my God, and all Your saving laws, and all Your quickening service, and all Your life-giving works.”
Afterwards the priest recites what I would say is likely a very early Christian shortened “summarized” creed that the Coptic Church maintained before the three ecumenical councils established it in the longer tri-council-approved form as we know it today. I say this because there seems to be evidence in the early Church that such shorter creeds existed in various locales before today’s full-length version came to be. For example, if you look at the first ecumenical council, at Nicea, you’ll see that Bishop Eusebius presented a creed that had already been in use in the locale where he presided, and it simply looks like a shortened version of the Creed we have today.
See the below early Christian texts that describe this ancient rite in the early Church:
Apostolic Constitutions (c. AD 200-390):
“And after this renunciation, let him make his public association, saying, ‘I associate myself to Christ and believe, and am baptized into one Unbegotten Being, the only true God Almighty . . .” [here follows the Creed].
St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. AD 250):
“The very question that is asked in baptism is a witness of the truth. For when we say, ‘Do you believe in eternal life and remission of sins through the Holy Church?’ we are saying that remission of sins is not granted except in the Church.”
Now see the creed that is pronounced according to the Coptic rite, where the priest recites the core summary of Christian belief in God, the resurrection of the dead, and the Church, and asks the candidate to repeat after him:
I believe in one God, God the Father the Pantocrator, and his Only-begotten Son Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy, life-giving Spirit, and the resurrection of the flesh, and the one only holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Notice how similarly this rite was described by St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. AD 250):
“The very question that is asked in baptism is a witness of the truth. For when we say, ‘Do you believe in eternal life and remission of sins through the Holy Church?’ we are saying that remission of sins is not granted except in the his Only-begotten Son Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy, life-giving Spirit, and the resurrection of the flesh, and the one only holy catholic and apostolic Church.”
In the Coptic rite, after the recitation of the shortened creek, the priest asks the person directly: “Do you believe.”
The person to be baptized is to respond, “I believe.”
This reminds us of others in the New Testament who were baptized and asked the same question, such as the Ethiopian eunuch:
Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts 8:36-37)
5. The priest’s instructions to parents/spiritual-caretakers about the bringing up of the baptized, which we often ignore and neglect to follow
“You have to know … the greatness of this honor that your children have taken by joining the chosen ones through the grace that they have received, becoming Christians through the Holy baptism that our Savior founded, as the Holy disciples revealed.”
How many of us have paid attention to these opening words which the priest delivers as commandments to those who are responsible for the spiritual well-being of the one who has been baptized?
It goes on just as beautifully to describe the depth of what just happened. It’s not about the typical fascination of seeing a child being dunked in water and those gathered to celebrate it. The occasion is momentous because of this:
“Today, my beloved brethren, your children have become heirs to the life with the Master Christ. Today your children have received the pledge of life, and become steadfast in the true Orthodox faith. The day they were born they were slaves and not free. But today, they have been freed from an evil deception.”
Now pay attention to the grave responsibility that is given to the parents/godparents to care for the one who has been baptized (which I wish each and every parent/godparent would frame and always point to whenever the new Christian wonders why they are being so diligently guided):
“God [will] ask you to answer for them if you neglected them and did not discipline them or dissuade them from ungodly behavior.
– Teach them how to read the holy books, which are the breath of God,
– And to go to church morning and evening.
– Teach them to fast Wednesdays and Fridays, the Holy Forty days of lent, and to observe all the fasts and laws of the church and the Apostolic orders.
– Protect your children and do not allow them to go to the places where evil dwells, so that God may safeguard them from satanic temptations.
– From this day you are responsible for their acts and deeds, and have guaranteed them by Christ the Master a true guarantee, to give an answer for them on the judgment day.
– Work diligently to educate them in a gracious and polite manner, and that you may be duly proud of them.
– Bring them up on a firm base of righteousness.
– Prohibit them from going astray and from association with the bad, the debauched, and the evil people.
– Nurse them in spiritual teachings and teach them the fear of God and His revered commands.
– Establish them through discipline and spiritual exercises.
– Do not be negligent as irresponsible guards, but rather lend your ears to His words to you: “Well done, you good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over few things, I will make you ruler over many things”